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October 2017

The Figures behind Terrorism in
“The Secret Agent”

Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent published in 1907, an act of terrorism
against the Greenwich Observatory creates panic in the streets of London. The
story opens with a man named Adolf Verloc who struggles with a conflict between
right and wrong as his connections with an anarchist group coincide with his
duties as a secret agent. His primary concern is earning a reasonable wage, but
Mr. Vladimir, his boss at the Embassy, orders him to blow up an Observatory to
attract attention from the government to put a stop to the anarchist movements
spreading through London, or else he’s fired. This resembles London’s struggle
during the late 1800’s for rule and order, involving cops who go easy on
anarchist movements with little to no punishment for serious crimes. Conrad’s
introduction to various characters describes the type of personalities that
become involved with crime in the community. In conclusion, Conrad emphasizes the
cause and effect of violence and terrorism through the use of unsympathetic
characters who struggle with their mediocre lives.

describes Verloc as a mysterious man with a lazy lifestyle as a shop owner and
a secret agent, as well as a provider for his wife Winnie, his wife’s brother
Stevie, and his mother in law.  He earns
a good wage off his jobs doing little work, with a careless boss, Verloc practically
shows up once a week to pick up a government check. Conrad details that Verloc,
“Born of industrious parents for a life of toil, he had embraced indolence from
an impulse as profound as inexplicable and as imperious as the impulse which
directs a man’s preference for one particular women in a given thousand. He was
too lazy even for a mere demagogue, for a workman orator, for a leader of
labour” (Conrad 11). This explains Verloc’s life as comfortable and lazy, which
emphasizes the flaws of society with the misconception that people have to work
hard to earn a decent wage.  After Mr.
Vladimir directly informs Verloc that he needs to start producing results if he
wants to keep his job, Verloc is directed to blow up Greenwich Observatory to
attack the idea of “Science” and put fear into the people of London. This
daunting task poses a threat to Verloc’s comfortable lifestyle as he agrees to
follow through with it to maintain his laziness.  After going on a few walks with his wife’s
brother Stevie, he realizes that the boy may not be useless even with his
mental disability, as Winnie sits around the house Conrad details, “She was
alone longer than usual on the day of the attempted bomb outrage in Greenwich
Park, because Mr Verloc went out very early that morning and did not come back
till nearly dusk” (Conrad 165).  This
hints to the reader that Mr Verloc has included Stevie into his work to blow up
the Observatory, implementing how something must have gone wrong, which Conrad
later reveals as Stevie’s accidental death where he trips on the roots of a
tree while holding onto various explosives. 
After this tragic event occurs, Verloc makes sure to keep it a secret
for as long as he can, until Winnie finds out from an official who collects
sufficient evidence tying Verloc to the scene of the crime.  With Winnie finding out the horrible deed her
husband has done, Conrad explains, “The mind of Mr Verloc lacked profundity.
Under the mistaken impression that the value of individuals consists in what
they are in themselves, he could not possibly comprehend the value of Stevie in
the eyes of Mrs Verloc” (Conrad 201). 
This expresses how little Verloc thinks of other people, only struggling
to suppress his life back to the lazy way it used to be under whatever
conditions.  In conclusion, his strive
for laziness and careless feelings towards other people; reveal the motives
necessary for terrorist activity within the
secret agent.   

character with a criminal mindset is the Professor, who is described as a
selfish man who exists with the belief in a single idea, that he’s the most
powerful man in the world.  When first introduced
he reveals to Ossipon, an anarchist, about his hidden explosives that he
carries on him at all times, threatening to set them off and kill everyone
around the area if they choose to defy him. 
The Professor exclaims, “To break up the superstition and worship
of legality should be our aim. Nothing would please me more than to see
Inspector Heat and his likes take to shooting us down in broad daylight with
the approval of the public. Half our battle would be won then: the
disintegration of the old morality would have set in in its very temple. That
is what you ought to aim at” (Conrad 64). 
This expresses the Professor’s strive for anarchy, as he explains to
Ossipon how if the cops were to shoot him in the street without giving him time
to set off his bomb, that they would be disobeying their idea of law and order.  Since the Professor thinks so highly of
himself, and lives with what Ossipon refers to as a “forced personality,” he is
always trying to create conflict with the authorities.  As the Professor walks through the streets,
Conrad indicates, “Lost in the crowd, miserable and undersized, he meditated
confidently on his power, keeping his hand in the left pocket of his trousers,
grasping lighty the india-rubber ball, the supreme guarantee of his sinister
freedom; but after a while he became disagreeably affected by the sight of the
roadway thronged with vehicles and of the pavement crowded with men and women”
(Conrad 71).  Insight on the Professors
insecurities, Conrad is explaining how he feels inferior in public, and with
the idea that he can blow up anyone he wants to, it expresses how he has to
force his personality when he remains alone with his thoughts in order to
create his fantasy of superiority over everyone.  The Professor’s attitude towards other people
resembles adolescence, as he thoroughly believes that anyone with weakness
doesn’t deserve to live.  As the novel
reaches the end, Conrad states, “And the incorruptible Professor walked
too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future.
He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and
destruction … Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like
a pest in the street full of men” (Conrad 269). 
The emphasis on the Professor at the end of the novel, expresses how
even with his strong opposing views against the weak, he shows weakness in
public realizing that no one really knows him, and that the ball in his pocket
will never be enough to get the attention he desires.  Therefore, the Professor shows a psychopathic
view of rule and order, as he hopes to terrorize for the attention of the
public, his desire to know that he is superior to all completely reveal the
motives necessary for destruction in the
secret agent.

Lastly, Winnie Verloc reveals an
aggressive behavior after the loss of her brother Stevie, as she acts on
revenge killing Verloc for having caused Stevie’s death.  Conrad emphasizes Winnie’s connection with
Stevie through her protective behavior over him and the anarchists her husband
is friends with.  As she is constantly
thinking of her poor disabled brother, Conrad explains, “Mrs. Verloc, turning
towards her recumbent husband, raised herself on her elbow, and hung over him
in her anxiety that he should believe Stevie to be a useful member of the
family. That ardour of protecting compassion exalted morbidly in her childhood
by the misery of another child tinged her sallow cheeks with a faint dusky
blush” (Conrad 51).  Not only does this
describe how Verloc’s ignorance of Stevie’s usefulness bothers Winnie, but it
also explains how Winnie has always acted as Stevie’s protector growing up in
the same household with the same family insecurities and struggles.  This bond is further emphasized through her
compassion to give Stevie a connection with her father, so he can develop a
bond and maybe be less troubled by his overlook of the world.  As Mrs. Verloc urges to get Mr. Verloc to
spend time with him, Conrad details, “She thought also that Mr Verloc was
as much of a father as poor Stevie ever had in his life. She was aware also
that it was her work. And with peaceful pride she congratulated herself on a
certain resolution she had taken a few years before. It had cost her some effort,
and even a few tears” (Conrad 163).  Her
comfort in knowing that Stevie is now starting to spend time with Verloc makes
her feel happy, as Conrad emphasizes Winnie’s relief in knowing her struggle to
stay with Verloc for the security of her family, was a good option from the
beginning.  After a bit of relief, a few
days go by smoothly until Mr. Verloc comes home troubled by the death of
Stevie, and lies to Winnie claiming that everything’s fine.  When Winnie finds out about the death from
Inspector Heat who comes to visit with suspicions against Verloc, she goes into
a deep depression from her loss.  With
this loss Winnie turns to anger as Conrad explains, “The knife was already
planted in his breast.  It met no
resistance on its way.  Hazard has such
accuracies.  Into that plunging blow,
delivered over the side of the couch, Mrs Verloc had put all the inheritance of
her immemorial and obscure decent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns,
and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of barrooms” (Conrad 227).  Her anger over Verloc, emphasizes the feeling
of her loss, showing how a disruption in her strong connection with her
brother, is enough to commit a crime against her husband.  Therefore, strong motivation towards violence
is emphasized by Winnie through the use of loss, as she takes her husband’s
life away as a result of grief. 

In conclusion, the cause and effect of
violence in the secret agent is
emphasized through the different characters that become corrupted by their own
self image.  Winnie, Verloc, and the Professor
are a few examples of some of the characters who show a sign of weakness
throughout the novel.  Whether their
motives are for laziness, revenge of a fallen family member, or for attention,
it reveals how the weaknesses can influence crime.  Conrad clearly defines a fine connection between
the violent acts of people who are consistently involved in crime.  Therefore, with a series of characters Conrad clearly
displays the weaknesses that influence violence against others, emphasizing how
strong motives can cause serious problems within someone’s life.      


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